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College-based HE, student engagement and HE discourse

21 Jun 2021 | Dr Jo Tyssen Following the Advance HE Student Engagement Conference, Head of WP, Outreach and Projects at University Centre Leeds, Dr Jo Tyssen, shares her thoughts on improving student employability and the value of engagement in memberships like Advance HE, as a college-based HE (CBHE) provider.

Being a CBHE provider offers opportunities for student engagement that involves both further education (FE) and HE students; supporting access, retention, and progression. However, at the same time this can bring challenges that may not be encountered by universities.  

As part of the Advance HE Student Engagement Conference, the WP and Outreach team at University Centre Leeds (UCLeeds) highlighted some of the opportunities and challenges in improving student engagement in personal development opportunities. 


We are part of Leeds City College (LCC); one of the largest FE Colleges in the country with more than 20,000 students (of which roughly 1400 are HE), and one of the biggest providers of apprenticeships regionally. This provides substantial opportunity for outreach, with collaborative working with FE departments, and FE and HE students themselves, in developing evidence-based programmes and projects, innovative technological approaches, and policy development.

We consider both FE and HE students as active, equal, partners in their learning, and in defining academic and strategic direction. Our Student Engagement Policy lays out the principles of student engagement for:

  • student representation
  • curriculum development, review and evaluation
  • enhancement of teaching and learning.

However, our student engagement work goes beyond this, including a focus on student engagement in wider institutionally linked activities and personal development opportunities. Collaborative working between the WP and Outreach Team, Student Support Team, FE provision, and students, is key to this and example programmes include the Student Ambassador Scheme, Group Representatives and Student Union engagement, and peer-assisted study support.

These have been great ways to enhance student engagement across the wider institution and have resulted in increased student voice, higher annual NSS response rates, greater engagement in other institution wide activities, and maintaining a link between FE and HE students. This way of working with students in wider activities has provided opportunities to develop engaged and immersive relationships with our students and have helped to engage students in consultation about responding to Covid-19, the move online, their specific needs, and the plans moving forward.

Being part of a Google Reference College, awarded for our use of G-Suite for Education in exemplary and innovative ways, made the transition to online delivery very smooth, and the response of students to continue engaging was impressive. Engagement of our FE and HE students was maintained, and in places increased, as a result.


However, being a CBHE provider also brings challenges to student engagement; including resources and funding, recruitment processes (in relation to student ambassadors), student confidence, evaluation capacity, and HE student representation in an FE institution (particularly in regard to the Student Union).  

To highlight a further challenge, although, as an institution we perform well in terms of WP and outreach, we do find that engagement through Student Ambassadors and Group Reps, for example, does not reflect this diversity. Often, it is because students from underrepresented groups are local commuter students, typical of CBHE, and have a number of commitments outside of the classroom and so do not wish to engage in anything further. They don’t necessarily identify as being a student when they leave the classroom as they are then a parent or employee for instance. We are seeing a slow change in this and the move online has made engagement more accessible for many students. But there is still some way to go.

Representing CBHE

Another challenge is the lack of benchmarking for CBHE providers in the sector, and the disproportionate focus on universities compared to CBHE within sector-wide discourse. Colleges have been pertinent to HE reform and widening participation and yet are overshadowed, in literature and policy, by a bias for evidence from universities. We have proven success in widening participation, with 45.01% of the current cohort being from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, 64.8% being from IMD quintiles 1 or 2, and 58% of are students are over the age of 21; many being first in family to enter HE and/or commuter students. As such I believe we provide an example of the value of CBHE providers participating in sector-wide discourse to share insight and practice.

I was taken aback by how welcoming forums and memberships have been in accepting college-based representatives but also by their surprise at this engagement where they often see low participation from CBHE providers in these sector-wide spaces. Opportunities provided by the likes of Advance HE provide a means for mobility within the sector and, although it took a leap of faith and institutional confidence to be able to increase our own participation, it is something we have fully valued.

It has provided an opportunity to represent the voice of CBHE providers, something often lacking in other forums. Being able to share practice, opportunities and challenges has opened dialogue with university colleagues and provided discourse more reflective of the sector. It is good to be feel like an equal player in the field, to share common experiences, and to offer new insights to the wider sector.

I would highly recommend other CBHE providers put themselves in these spaces and increase the HE in FE voice in the sector.


Jo is the Head of WP, Outreach and Projects at University Centre Leeds and has 15 years’ experience within the HE sector. Her role involves managing a series of outreach and student support projects and initiatives, across the student lifecycle, that support student personal development.

In a pandemic era, enhancing enterprise and employability within curriculum development is essential to enabling student success. How can we address this in our institutions? Join the conversation at Teaching and Learning Conference 2021 on 6-8 July.


The Employability Symposium 2022, 26 April, will aim to bring together cutting-edge examples of how employability can be embedded at school, faculty/college and/or institutional levels. Find out more.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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